Identity and Authority

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Identity and Authority

Founding Heroes.

When the term "Middle Ages" was first used in the eighteenth century, it was intended to refer negatively to the long period of European history between the fall of the great civilization of classical (Roman) antiquity in the fifth century and the "rebirth" of cultural greatness in the Italian Renaissance of the early fifteenth century. What this terminology acknowledges is the fact that in the period immediately preceding the Middle Ages, a void had been created by the disintegration of the centralized government of the Romans, leaving most of Europe under the control of tribal peoples with no written literature and no continuity of tradition in a geographically or culturally identifiable location. Thus, the early history of literature in the Middle Ages is in many ways the story of people seeking to define and justify their cultural identity. As the peoples of each region became conscious of themselves as a group distinct from others, they transmitted myths of origin involving a founding hero, passing them on orally within the areas of shared language that would eventually be recognized as countries. In some cases this figure was adapted from classical Greek stories, Homeric and Vergilian accounts of the fall of Troy where the Trojan heroes were dispersed throughout the world; the word "Britain," for example, comes from the name "Brutus" and "France" from "Francus." In other cases, the heroes were homegrown, such as Britain's Arthur and France's Roland. As their stories began to be organized and then written down in a cultural climate that honored the "authority" of the past (both classical and biblical), they served as the nucleus for thematic clusters known as "matters," the chief examples being the matter of France, the matter of Britain, and the matter of Rome or antiquity.

The Matter of France.

The matter (matière) of France provided the plots of many Old French chansons de geste (heroic poetry), such as the Song of Roland, a poem composed around 1100 which contributed immeasurably to the developing consciousness of what it meant to be French. Based on an historical episode in 778 in which Charlemagne's nephew Roland was killed in an ambush as he was returning home from an unsuccessful campaign against the Saracens (Islamic Moors) in Spain, the poem recounts the heroic defense of a pass in the Pyrenees Mountains by the small French rearguard (with 20,000 men) against the overwhelming Saracen forces (400,000). With its tales of such originary figures as Roland, Charlemagne, and William of Orange, the matter of France not only created the substance of French literature of the early Middle Ages, but also was imported by other national cultures. For example, by the thirteenth century, many of the tales of Charlemagne and his Twelve Peers (or companions) were translated into prose in the Old Norse Karlamagnus Saga (Charlemagne's Saga), while Wolfram von Eschenbach similarly adapted for a German audience the cycle of chansons de geste about William of Orange in his Willehalm.

Terms in Medieval Literature

Alliterative Revival: Use of the Anglo-Saxon alliterative poetic line, featuring three to four repetitions of words having the same initial consonant or vowel per line, in fourteenth-century Middle English poems, such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Piers Plowman.

Comitatus: The early medieval heroic code practiced by male members of a communal group, defined by a reciprocal relationship in which the lord offered material rewards and a social identity in return for his thanes' military and political allegiance.

Contrapasso: The method used by Dante in the Divine Comedy to allocate appropriate punishment for sin, where the punishment suits the sin by being its ironic opposite.

Courtly love: The term coined by Gaston Paris in the nineteenth century to describe fin'amors (refined love), the extremes of devotion and psychological suffering experienced by male protagonists for their ladies in medieval romances and lyrics, as codified by twelfth-century writer Andreas Capellanus in his Art of Courtly Love.

Dolce stil nuovo: The "sweet new style" of Italian love lyrics in the thirteenth century, mirroring the themes of the troubadours of Provence, used by poets such as Dante and Guido Cavalcanti.

Fortune's Wheel: The popular medieval allegorical construct to explain cyclical human misfortune, caused by the turning of a wheel by blindfolded Lady Fortune, on whose "Wheel of Fortune" all men are situated, rising high upon or being cast off of the wheel (regardless of their merits or evil actions) according to their current state of luck.

Four-fold medieval allegory: Four levels of medieval allegorical interpretation: 1) the literal level, 2) the allegorical level, 3) the tropological or "moral" level, 4) the anagogical or eschatological level, about the afterlife.

Kenning: An oral-formulaic phrase used in Anglo-Saxon poetry that employs juxtaposed words as metaphors to imagine familiar objects in a new way, such as "whale-road" (the sea), "earth's candle" (the sun), and "ring-giver" (king).

Laisses similaires ("similar stanzas"): Repeated verse stanzas used to emphasize important and dramatic scenes in French chansons de geste and other heroic narratives.

Litotes: The rhetorical device of ironic understatement employed in northern European literature of the Middle Ages, especially in Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon poems and the Icelandic Sagas.

Locus amoenus: Literally the "beautiful place," the locale of most medieval romances, the opening of dream visions, and the troubadours' chansons d'amour, featuring soft spring breezes, flowing water, blooming flowers, budding greenery, and the songs of birds.

Matter of Britain: Stories about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, which contributed to the development of romance and made Arthur first a national hero in England and later a literary figure of international stature.

Matter of France: Tales of such originary figures in the development of French national culture as Roland, Charlemagne, and William of Orange, contributing especially to the genre of chanson de geste.

Matter of Rome the Great and Antiquity: The broad category of plots about classical antiquity in Greece, Troy, Rome, or Northern Africa, retold in medieval vernacular romances such as the French Roman de Thebes and Boccaccio's Teseide.

Minnesingers (German: Minnesänger): Singers about Minne, which means "love," such as Walter von der Vogelweide; the German equivalents of the French troubadours and trouvères, who developed the themes of fin'amors in German lyrics.

Oral-formulaic tropes: Poetic stock phrases that could be recalled easily or recombined to invent new lines if the scop (the Anglo-Saxon minstrel) forgot a line during performance or needed to fill out the meter in a new passage.

Reverdie: A term in Middle English meaning "re-greening," celebrating the reappearance of spring after a long winter, employed to start a lyric poem or song, or to open a love poem or dream vision.

Sapientia and Fortitudo: "Wisdom and fortitude," a combination of discretion and cleverness with physical strength and bravery, which contributed to successful lordship or heroism in early medieval literature.

Seven Deadly Sins: The Roman Church's designation of the seven most serious sins—Pride, Wrath, Avarice, Envy, Gluttony, Lust, Sloth—used by medieval writers to organize sections of their literary works.

Story collections: Anthologies of various separate stories that circulated together in a reasonably coherent form, organized around a theme or involving a framing device.

Translatio studii: Reflecting the Latin root of "translate," meaning "to carry across," the transfer of the plot and characters of a tale produced for the audience of one national culture in an earlier period to that of another culture in a later period by medieval writers, involving significant changes in the plot and original roles of the characters as well as the very genre that the model text represented.

Troubadour or Trouvère: Poets, respectively from southern and northern France, attached to particular courts and patrons or wandering from court to court, who composed a new style of lyric love poetry with complex stanzas and rhyme patterns, especially the chansons de croisade and the chansons d'amour from the twelfth century onwards.

Vernacular: The language of a national culture of medieval Europe—French, English, Spanish, Italian, German, Norse—as distinguished from the language of learning and the medieval Roman Church, Latin.

Stories of King Arthur.

The "matter of Britain" made King Arthur first a national hero in England, the equal of Charlemagne in French culture, and later a literary figure of international stature. In his twelfth-century History of the Kings of Britain, Geoffrey of Monmouth built upon and embellished earlier fragments of texts documenting a sixth-century Saxon warrior named Arthur, who achieved success in battles against the Romans and other neighboring tribes. Geoffrey created a full biography of the reign of the now familiar King Arthur, complete with some of this matter's most memorable characters, including Uther Pendragon, Merlin (the magician and sage counselor of Arthur), and Morgan le Faye (Arthur's antagonistic half sister). Among his accounts of other authentically historical British monarchs, Geoffrey placed the largely fictive story of King Arthur. Already in twelfth-century France, in the earliest examples of the romance genre (a type of long, episodic narrative poem), Chrétien de Troyes created narratives about Arthur and his knights of the Round Table. Indeed, stories of this "matter of Britain" were retold and amplified by romance writers in France, England, Germany, and elsewhere in Europe throughout the Middle Ages, as well as during the Arthurian revival (called "medievalism") of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The Matter of Rome the Great.

Although in modern times writers are often praised for the originality or the novelty of their plots and characterizations, these qualities were not much valued in the Middle Ages since it was believed that truth lay in stories and situations that had been tested and refined through the passage of time and filtered through tradition. Thus, the "matter of Rome the great" was not exclusively the early history of the region that would eventually become Italy. Rather, this broader category of plot source generally comprised various stories about classical antiquity in Greece, Troy, Rome, or Northern Africa. One of the most popular bodies of material concerned the heroes of the ancient Theban dynasties, whose tragic history was told first in Latin in Statius' Thebaid (c. 91 c.e.), then later retold in medieval vernacular (non-Latin) poetry such as the French Roman de Thebes (1152) and the Italian poet Giovanni Boccaccio's epic about the war between Athens and Thebes, the Teseide (The Tale of Theseus; late 1339–1341), the source story for the English writer Chaucer's The Knight's Tale (early 1380s). Another large subject that belonged to the matter of antiquity was the Trojan War and its aftermath, originating in Vergil's Aeneid, passed on in Latin versions of Homer, and then portrayed respectively in the FrenchRoman d'Eneas (1160), Boccaccio's Philostrato (The One Laid Low by Love; late 1330s), and Geoffrey Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde (early 1380s). The matter of antiquity similarly informed the plots and characters of many individual romances about the exploits of Alexander the Great, Queen Dido of Carthage, and other figures or events of Greco-Roman or North African history.

Genres in the Middle Ages

Allegory: A narrative mode in which abstract ideas are presented either through personifications (that is, characters who embody ideas like Truth or Justice) or through concrete, realistic characters and situations that have an additional layer or layers of symbolic meaning, even though they operate within a literal plot that makes sense in and of itself.

Aubade or Aube or Alba: Literally a "dawn song," a type of troubadour lyric in which lovers lament the coming of the dawn because they must part after a night of clandestine lovemaking.

Breton lay: A short verse narrative, exemplified by the Lais of Anglo-Norman poet Marie de France, which were originally performed orally in the Breton language and were transformed into written narratives from the twelfth-century onward, featuring rash promises, erotic entanglements, an ambivalent code of ethics, and a strong supernatural strain.

Chanson d'amour: A troubadour love song in which the vocabulary expressing the roles of the lover and the beloved echoes the terminology of lordship so that the beloved lady plays the role of the haughty "domna" (female "lord") to the poet, her vassal.

Chanson de geste: Literally "song of deeds or exploits," a type of French heroic verse narrative of the eleventh through thirteenth centuries, based on earlier oral accounts, recounting heroic deeds in warfare, often connected with the Crusades.

Dream vision: A medieval poetic genre consisting of a narrator's account of his unusual dream, provoked by his physical surroundings or bedtime reading matter, in which he is often visited by a male or female authority figure who issues guidance or advice. These narratives treated such themes as love, philosophical and spiritual issues, and contemporary mores, often from a satirical perspective.

Eddic Poetry: Heroic and mythological lays composed in medieval Scandinavia in freeform or varying meters, based on Germanic legends and mythology about the pagan northern gods.

Fable (Animal) A story in prose or verse in which animals speak and act as people, with an attached moralization. The fox, called "Reynard," was the most popular medieval fable character.

Fabliau: A brief tale, most often in French, set in the present-day world, populated by stock bourgeois characters, employing clever, complicated plots (often love triangles) about humankind's most basic functions, especially sex.

Goliardic poetry: The irreverent and comic poems of learned wandering students, and the serious and philosophical poetry of more established clerical authors, often teachers of rhetoric.

Icelandic family sagas: Tightly structured, complexly plotted thirteenth-century heroic prose narratives composed from earlier oral accounts, depicting the blood feuds and other events that happened during the settlement of Iceland as a colony of Norway in the tenth and eleventh centuries.

Marian lyrics: Medieval religious lyric poetry written especially in France, Italy, and England devoted to veneration of the Virgin Mary, featuring some of the same tropes used to honor the courtly lady in the chansons d'amour of the troubadours and other medieval lyric poets.

Pastourelle: Literally, a "song about a shepherdess," a short, dialogue-filled, narrative account in verse about a courtly knight's attempt to seduce an innocent, but clever shepherdess.

Romance: Episodic narratives composed in verse or prose throughout Europe from the twelfth through fifteenth centuries, whose plots derive from the various "Matters" of France, Britain, Rome, or antiquity and involve a high degree of fantasy and sometimes the attainment of love in a search or quest, as well as the testing of the prowess or morality of their knightly heroes. Romances explored the emotions of their protagonists in a way that heroic narratives avoided.

Saint's life: A medieval narrative about the life of a saint or virtuous person; also known as hagiography.

Skaldic poetry: Verse composed in medieval Scandinavia that employed an erudite, specialized vocabulary in a highly complicated syntax.


Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski, "Old French Narrative Genres: Towards a Definition of the Roman Antique," Romance Philology 34 (1980): 143–159.

Aymé Petit, Naissances du roman: Les techniques littéraires dans les romans antiques du XIIe siècle. 2 vols. (Paris and Geneva: Champion-Slatkine, 1985).

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Identity and Authority

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